“During my youth I was always in trouble,” says Benjamin Hart, Cuyamaca College commencement student speaker for 2023.
After dropping out of Mission Bay High School his freshman year, Benjamin’s mother sent him to live with his father in Texas. Finding the change of scenery beneficial, Benjamin completed his GED in 2003, the same year he would have graduated high school. His scores on the standardized tests were exceptional and well above the state standards.
One of the staff members at the testing facility told him, “With scores like these, you would really be cheating yourself if you didn’t go to college.”
But without direction and a plan, Benjamin started working and did not apply to college. Instead he job-hopped for a few years, and at the age of 21 made his way back to San Diego. By this time he was using drugs and drinking alcohol daily.
“I was young and dumb and actively using and drinking alcohol; every day was a party,” said Benjamin.
His lifestyle led to what would be nearly a decade of homelessness. Actively driving food trucks, painting, cleaning, and working other jobs, Benjamin was sleeping on the streets, spending money on addiction. “I was comfortable where I was,” he said.
That comfort lasted until Benjamin’s alcoholism got to a point where it affected his ability to function day-to-day. “The alcohol almost killed me. I couldn’t even get my shoes on …It became a chore. I had to drink to be okay,” said Benjamin.
Deciding getting help was long overdue, in 2012 Benjamin checked himself into a year-long detox program. After taking that time to get sober, life came full circle for Benjamin when he landed a job as a Case Manager for the Alpha Project, a nonprofit organization assisting the homeless of San Diego, and then for PATH (People Assisting the Homeless.)
After working at PATH for over two years and with an exceptional track record for client improvement, Benjamin sat down with his supervisor to talk about how he could grow within the organization. He was dismayed to learn his growth was limited without a college degree.
“I was so crushed. I felt all this inadequacy; it was horrible,” remembered Benjamin.
Trying his hand at the automotive industry, Benjamin applied to work at Smitty’s Auto Service in Normal Heights as a service writer’s assistant. After a couple of months, Benjamin again realized he wanted more. “I told my boss I want to work on the cars,” said Benjamin. Benjamin’s boss, a Cuyamaca College Automotive Program alumnus, recommended that Benjamin pursue a degree and/or certificate at Cuyamaca.
Realizing that higher education was a necessity for growth, Benjamin immediately joined the Automotive Program. “I really enjoy the comradery in the classes. I’m surrounded by really bright people,” said Benjamin.
Today, Benjamin is preparing to graduate with an Associate of Science degree in Automotive Technology. Benjamin also now runs his own automotive shop with the skills he learned at Cuyamaca College. At his shop, Benjamin makes it a point to charge customers fairly, sometimes even below the average prices for services. He strives to be a mechanic that his community can trust.
A member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, an international honor society that recognizes students for their academic achievement; Benjamin is also the first Career Education student to be the commencement ceremony student speaker.
After commencement, Benjamin plans to continue improving his skills and one day transfer to UC San Diego, where he hopes to obtain a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
“I want to inspire people,” says Benjamin, “if I can do it, you can do it too.”